Bovine TB is a serious disease and its incidence has been increasing steadily since the 1980s with the number of new cases doubling every nine years. In the last 10 years the disease has cost the taxpayer £500 million. The Government remains committed to using all available means to address this disease. It has now been confirmed that the pilot badger culls go ahead in Somerset and Gloucestershire this summer. Ministers have also agreed that an area in Dorset should be prepared as a reserve. The decision to pilot a badger cull is based on the best scientific evidence available. Evidence from Australia, the Republic of Ireland and the USA has shown that TB in cattle cannot be controlled without also controlling the disease in the surrounding wildlife population. Research has demonstrated that cattle and badgers transmit the disease to each other and that sustained culling of badgers leads to a significant reduction of the disease in cattle. The two pilot areas where culling will initially take place are both in TB hotspots. It will be overseen and evaluated by an independent expert panel reporting their findings to Ministers.
Ministers are clear that culling represents only part of a comprehensive package of measures that the Government is using to tackle bovine TB. In high-risk areas herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are removed. Restrictions on cattle movements have been strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) continues to look at ways to improve the testing of cattle for TB.
The Government has also funded and developed an injectable badger vaccine but this has its limitations. Badgers need to be trapped before they can be vaccinated, and the process has to be repeated annually for many years. In addition the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective in preventing TB. As a result, current vaccines will not be as effective as culling in reducing the spread of the disease.
Defra is also planning to invest a further £15.5m in vaccine development over the next four years to develop an oral vaccine for badgers, which may be cheaper and more effective than an injectable vaccine, in addition to a vaccine for cattle. As the EU Commissioner Tonio Borg has recently made clear, no country has done more in this area than the UK. However, it will be many years before these methods are available and unfortunately, the vaccination of our national herd is prohibited by EU legislation. Our cattle industry cannot wait that long. It is therefore vital that the Government uses every tool at its disposal to check the progress of this devastating disease.
The following is a letter Sir George has received from his ministerial colleague, Owen Paterson,the Secretary of State of DEFRA:
4 June 2013
Bovine TB and Badger Control
Ahead of tomorrow’s Opposition Day Debate, I wanted to take this opportunity to set out the facts behind the Government’s approach to tackling bovine TB (bTB).
The Scale of the Problem
Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. The importance of the situation for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overstated. BTB is a devastating disease which threatens our cattle industry, presents a risk to other livestock and wildlife species such as badgers, domestic pets and humans.
This was once a disease isolated to small pockets; in 1972 only 0.01 per cent of cattle tested as infected. It has now spread extensively through the West of England and Wales. The number of new cases has doubled every nine years and in the last decade we have slaughtered 305,000 cattle across Great Britain. In 2012 in England alone, over 5.5 million bTB tests were performed, leading to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly £100 million. At one point last year, 26 per cent of herds in the South West and West were placed under movement restrictions. In the last ten years bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £500 million. It is estimated that this will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.
The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. The Government is committed to using all of the tools at its disposal and continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. In high-risk areas herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle.
In January this year, we put in place plans for a new surveillance testing regime and stricter cattle movement controls. England is now divided into two cattle TB testing frequency areas. The annual TB testing of farms has been extended in the South West, West, Central England and East Sussex to include adjoining areas which are at greatest risk from the geographic spread of TB. The rest of England is now on four-yearly testing.
Farmers who have had a case of TB on their farm are not allowed to bring new cattle in until the rest of the herd has been tested for TB and a vet has carried out an assessment. Farmers also now have only 30 days, down from 60, to move cattle that test negative for TB from a TB breakdown farm.
Vaccination is another tool and one that we would all like to be able to deploy more widely. Unfortunately it’s not there yet in terms of either development or practicality.
Since 1994, £43 million has been spent on developing an oral vaccine for badgers and a vaccine for cattle. We have committed to investing a further £15.5 million in vaccine development over the next four years. Despite this, a potential cattle vaccine remains some way off, with further evidence needed of its efficacy. Once we have a workable vaccine, we will, just as importantly, need a validated test to distinguish between infected and vaccinated cattle. Such a test will form a central part of our efforts to press for changes to EU legislation to enable our cattle to be vaccinated against TB. Current legislation prohibits this and we would risk seeing our beef and dairy exports banned if we were to take unilateral action. We have the third largest dairy production and fourth largest beef production in the EU, worth more than £8.4 billion to the economy, and any such move would be devastating.
In January, I met the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, Tonio Borg, to discuss progress towards a cattle vaccine. While he acknowledged that we have done more than any other country to take this work forward, he confirmed that the implementation of a legal and validated cattle vaccination is still at least 10 years away. Neither we nor the industry can afford to wait that long and it is for this reason that we must use all the tools currently available to us. I would like to assure you that if we had a viable and legal vaccine, we would be using it now.
The Government has also funded and developed an injectable badger vaccine; over the course of the next three years we are making available £250,000 a year to support and encourage badger vaccination around the areas of any cull. The vaccine does, however, have significant limitations in the field. Badgers need to be trapped before they can be vaccinated and the process has to be repeated annually for many years; this limits its use to small-scale projects. In addition the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective in preventing TB and does not make any difference to those animals that are already infected. As a result, current vaccines, as far as they exist, will not be as effective as culling in reducing the spread of the disease from badgers to cattle.
Badger Vaccination in Wales
Following the loss of a Judicial Review, and a change of Government in Wales, the political decision was taken by the current Labour administration not to cull but to trial badger vaccination.
At the time of this decision, the Bovine Tuberculosis Sub-Group of the EU’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) stated that:
“The Welsh eradication plan will lose some impetus as badger culling will now be replaced with badger vaccination. This was not part of the original strategy that consisted of a comprehensive plan that has now been disrupted.
“There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.”
In England we are testing that controlled shooting can be carried out by those affected by the disease at their own cost in a safe, effective and humane manner. If it can, the evidence shows that it’ll be more effective in dealing with the disease reservoir and far less costly, with badger vaccination currently costing £662 per badger or £3,900 per square km per year in Wales.
As we use the tools at our disposal and continue to invest in those that are currently out of reach, it is vital that we look at how other countries have tackled the disease. The experience of Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the United States shows that TB in cattle cannot be controlled without also controlling the disease in wildlife reservoirs:
• Australia reached bTB free status in 1997 by tackling bTB in cattle and wild water buffalo.
• New Zealand is on the verge of achieving the same status by tackling bTB in possums. The number of infected cattle and deer herds in New Zealand has dropped from 1,700 in the mid 1990s to 66 in 2011/12.
• The Republic of Ireland has reduced bTB from 9.6 per cent in 1995 to 7.4 per cent in 2010 with an eradication programme that includes badger control. In the same period it has increased from 0.8 to 9 per cent in England.
• In the United States, Michigan has successfully reduced the average annual number of livestock herds affected with bTB to single figures since 2005 by dealing with the disease in White-tailed deer.
The research in our own country over the past fifteen years has demonstrated that cattle and badgers can transmit the disease to each other; culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time.
In 1997, Professor Lord Krebs and the Independent Scientific Review Group concluded that:
“The sum of evidence strongly supports the view that, in Britain, badgers are a significant source of infection in cattle. Most of this evidence is indirect, consisting of correlations rather than demonstrations of cause and effect; but in total the available evidence, including the effects of completely removing badgers from certain areas, is compelling.”
Reflecting on the results of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which was overseen by Professor John Bourne and the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) and ran between 1998 and 2007, a 2007 report by the then Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, advocated the utility of culling as a tool in the battle against TB:
“In our view a programme for the removal of badgers could make a significant contribution to the control of cattle TB in those areas of England where there is a high and persistent incidence of TB in cattle, provided removal takes place alongside an effective programme of cattle controls.”
In April 2011, a meeting of independent scientific experts at Defra, including Professor Lord Krebs, confirmed the evidence base for such a policy:
“The science base generated from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial shows that proactive badger culling as conducted in the trial resulted in an overall beneficial effect compared with ‘survey only’ (no cull) areas on reducing new confirmed cattle herd breakdowns which is still in evidence 5½ years after the final annual proactive cull.”
Ongoing analysis of the results of the RBCT demonstrates the important role that culling can play in checking the progress of bovine TB, in spite of any initial disruption to badger populations on the edge of the culled area.
Professor Christl Donnelly, a former member of the ISG, has published an update to her 2010 paper, The Duration of the Effects of Repeated Widespread Badger Culling on Cattle Tuberculosis Following the Cessation of Culling, saying:
“In the time period from one year after the last proactive cull to 28 August 2011, the incidence of confirmed breakdowns in the proactive culling trial areas was 28 per cent lower than in ‘survey only’ areas and on lands up to 2km outside proactive trial areas was 4.1 per cent lower than outside ‘survey only’ areas.”
In January last year, Professor Donnelly published further analysis of RBCT data suggesting that badgers are responsible for half of all herd breakdowns in endemic areas:
“Based on mathematical modelling of data collected on badgers culled in initial proactive badger culls, estimates obtained by Donnelly and Hone (2010) indicated that on average at initial proactive badger culls roughly 50 per cent of bovine TB incidents could be attributed to infectious badgers.”
Extrapolation of the RBCT’s results shows that culling based on the Trial’s minimum criteria and “conducted in a co-ordinated, sustained and simultaneous manner” not only stops the increase in breakdowns but could be expected to lead to a reduction in the number of new confirmed cases of TB in cattle across the culled area and adjacent 2km ring.
The Government’s decision to pilot two culls in TB hotspots represents a logical extension of this work and has been designed to counteract some of the issues that have been highlighted by previous scientific studies. For example, any farmer participating in a cull will have to be compliant with all of the Government’s TB cattle controls, including strict bio-security measures, to reduce the risk of the spread of disease between badgers and cattle. Each pilot area will be significantly larger than 150km², with at least 70 per cent of it accessible for culling. Applicants must also, where practical, make use of barriers and buffers, such as motorways, rivers, coastlines or vaccinated areas, at the boundary of the culling area. All of these criteria are aimed at giving confidence in an overall beneficial effect.
To ensure that we continue to add to this evidence base, the monitoring of effectiveness in terms of badger removal, humaneness and safety in the pilot areas will be overseen and evaluated by an independent panel of experts who will report their findings to Ministers. The costs and the benefits of the approach being piloted have been assessed in terms of the financial implications and the difference this will make to the progression of TB in cattle.
The “humaneness” of controlled shooting
The “Good Practice Guidelines”, as agreed with Natural England, set out the features to be compiled within the pilots as the best basis for badgers being killed humanely under controlled shooting and cage trapping. This will be monitored throughout the pilots, with Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency (AHVLA) personnel observing the controlled shooting on 60 occasions in each of the two pilots. A scientifically valid sample of 120 badger carcasses killed during those observations will then be subject to post mortem examination by AHVLA to determine the length of time the badger took to die. An additional 120 carcasses killed by the same marksmen on an unobserved occasion will also have post mortems carried out on them to check for any variations with the observed outcomes.
The AHVLA observers will also report on any shots missing their targets, if a second shot was needed or if any shot badgers escaped. This information will also be reported back by the marksmen and their spotters for every night’s shooting.
In addition, Natural England will observe six nights of controlled shooting, carry out a series of follow up visits and telephone interviews with marksmen/contractors to check what happened on the previous night’s shooting. This information and the results of the post mortem examinations will then be reviewed by a group of independent scientific experts.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA), whose members have to deal with this horrendous disease on a daily basis, have reiterated their support for the pilot culls:
“We have not taken the decision to support the pilot badger culls lightly; we have considered all of the scientific evidence, which supports the management of bovine TB in badgers in order to reduce the incidence of the disease in cattle.
“We accept that there is a gap in our knowledge, which is whether controlled shooting can deliver a badger cull humanely and safely, and to the same degree of effectiveness as cage trapping and shooting. That is what the pilots are designed to address and why is it important that they are allowed to go ahead unhindered.”
The Way Forward
By starting the pilots this summer we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the scientific criteria and evidence base.
The Government remains determined to tackle bovine TB by all available means. This is in contrast to the last Labour government which stopped pro-active measures to control the disease in wildlife. We must not repeat their failed policy of doing nothing – one they continue to promulgate today. Between 1998 and 2010, the total number of herd breakdowns tripled from 1,226 to 3,634 and the number of cattle slaughtered rose sixfold from 4,102 to 24,000.
Only if we use every tool at our disposal, including culling, will we begin to check the progress of this devastating disease, put in place the foundations for the prosperous cattle industry that the public wishes to see and honour the commitment we made in the Coalition Agreement to our hard hit rural communities:
“As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.”
The decision to pilot a badger cull is not one that has been taken lightly. No one wants to kill badgers. It is based on the best available scientific evidence and the experience of other countries. No country in the world with a major cattle industry, and where wildlife carries TB, has eradicated the disease in cattle without tackling it in wildlife too. That is why it is so disappointing that the last government took the deliberate decision not to control the disease in wildlife, leaving our cattle industry so exposed to this deadly bacteria. We want to see healthy cattle living alongside healthy badgers.
Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Response to “Team Badger” criticisms of TB policy
1. You can only get rid of bTB by addressing the disease in wildlife.
Team Badger claim: That there are examples of countries in Europe that have controlled TB without controlling the wildlife reservoir.
Response: The situation in other EU member states that have a known TB problem in wildlife is that badger culling is practiced both in Switzerland and France, deer and wild boar are culled in Spain, Poland and the Baltic countries. Some of the member states that have recently achieved OTF status have not had bTB for years but had to go through testing procedures to demonstrate disease freedom; so the comparisons with other European countries are not valid.
We agree that an oral badger vaccine could be an effective tool in the fight against bovine TB. But we simply don’t have one yet. No vaccine formulation has yet been proved to be effective or safe enough to support a licence application (which may itself take a number of years). And we cannot wait for the problem to get worse.
We agree that biosecurity and cattle controls can help, but they are not enough when you have a known wildlife vector.
Of course the disease can be controlled by cattle controls in areas where wildlife is not a concern. That is precisely what we’re doing in the low incidence area of England and what was achieved in Scotland. But if we don’t tackle the wildlife problem in the endemic areas these low incidence areas will be under greater threat.
2. The reduction in bTB cases in cattle in the Republic of Ireland shows that a culling policy works.
Team Bader claim: That differences in testing, badger population density and badger behaviour between the UK and the Republic of Ireland (RoI) mean that the comparison is invalid. They also claim that there are no differences between RoI and Northern Ireland (NI).
The situation is deteriorating in NI but continuously improving in RoI. RoI now has almost half the herd breakdown rate of NI. There is very little difference in the cattle industry and cattle TB controls between NI and RoI. The main difference between them is that RoI culls badgers.
The very clear evidence from Ireland is that badger culling has worked. Huge investment in non-wildlife interventions in the late 80s and early 90s in Ireland led to no improvement in the disease situation.
Since 2002 the trend in reactor numbers have fallen from more than 28,000 to a little over 18,000, and the trend is clearly downwards. That is not a small reduction, as the Team Badger report suggests.
The cattle control improvements implemented in RoI in the past 10 years are virtually the same as those that have been introduced in the high Tb areas in England. In fact, in some ways the English testing is more severe. For example, RoI does not carry out tracings from all infected herds or use pre-movement testing like in England.
3. Case studies from the USA and New Zealand show that a cull of the wildlife reservoir is necessary.
Team Badger claim: That it is not possible to extrapolate from the experience of controlling wildlife reservoirs in the USA, New Zealand to the UK.
There are differences between the US and NZ situations and those in England, but international experiences clearly demonstrate the need for wildlife controls when wildlife plays an important role in a disease dynamic - and the Team Badger report does not refute this.
The case of how Australia has effectively eradicated TB is a further example of the same experience.
Incentivizing farmers to be a part of the solution is also part of our approach. Those who take the time to understand the huge impact that the disease has on farming businesses, families and communities know that the vast majority of farmers are already highly motivated to do all they can.
4. The legal protection of badgers has coincided with the recent rise in bTB.
Team Badger claim: The claims here focus on trying to argue that badgers do not play a role in bTB spread because badgers have low levels of infection, that long-distance spread cannot be caused by badgers and that other animals carry TB.
Low levels of infection in badgers are likely in the low risk areas but we know from RBCT data that in the high risk areas badger infection levels can be very high (~30%). Work in Ireland has shown that actual infection rates can be up to 4 times as high as those suggested by normal post-mortem analysis, so infection rates in badgers are almost always under-estimated.
Nobody claims that long distance spread to low risk areas is caused by badgers; we can clearly demonstrate that it is caused by cattle movements; the badger role is limited to the high risk areas where there is strong scientific evidence about their role and data from the RBCT to suggest a role in about 50% of herd breakdowns. Badgers may also have a role in the geographic spread of the endemic area, but this is yet to be established scientifically.
TB is present in other species but, at present, these are likely to be spill-over hosts from infection by badgers and cattle. There is a low risk that they are responsible for spreading the disease locally. In New Zealand, removal of the main wildlife reservoir saw elimination of TB from other host wildlife species, in this case deer and wild pigs.
5. There continues to be a rise in bTB in cattle.
Team Badger claim: Team Badger refute the evidence that the disease situation in England is worsening. There is a claim that there is high within-herd spread.
The continuing rise in bTB is evidentially true. The current projected doubling time of breakdown numbers is about 9 years.
Modelling of the disease at herd level suggests low within herd spread although this is sufficient to maintain disease unless infected cattle are removed and is probably higher in large herds. Mathematical modeling also suggests that about 50% of herd infections may be traceable to badgers and cattle controls cannot stop this.
The foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease outbreak in 2001 led to a temporary relaxation of testing but testing and biosecurity has been strengthened significantly since then. In spite of this the increase in Tb has continued on the same trajectory (although at a higher level) as before FMD.
Occasionally herds where there are repeated TB breakdowns are depopulated and licenses to re-stock are only issued if appropriate biosecurity is in place. Moreover, “finishing units” for cattle have to comply with biosecurity regulations to keep cattle and badgers separated.
The three main reasons for the spread of TB are:
(1) cattle movements and cattle contact,
(2) residual infection in herds that have been tested (due to moderate test sensitivity) and
(3) the wildlife reservoir of infection (mainly badgers).
Approaches to tackling (1) and (2) are well established and being improved continuously but the disease continues to spread. It is now necessary to address the source of the disease in wildlife as well.
6. It is difficult to control the movement of animals.
Team Badger claim: That movement of cattle is responsible for the spread of infection.
A small percentage of live animal farm-to-farm movements occur from the high risk area to low risk area and all these movements are subject to pre-movement testing (not used in other EU countries, including RoI). These movements have not led to an establishment of endemic bTB in the low risk areas.
Movements from farm-to-farm occur in the high risk area and are probably responsible for a proportion of TB breakdowns in cattle herds. It is difficult to establish exactly what proportion is due to cattle movements as most movements are local and within the same TB genotype home-range. Without these movements the cattle industry would not be able to function. The risks associated with these movements are, however, mitigated by pre-movement testing and by risk based trading policies that are being rolled out, following a stakeholder working group report in 2013
The UK has one of the best cattle movement tracing systems (CTS) in the world and, whilst abuse of system occasionally occurs, there is auditing and monitoring of the system.
Occasional successful prosecutions demonstrate its effectiveness. Reactor switching fraud has been controlled effectively since 2010 with the introduction of DNA ear tagging of cattle thought to have TB.
The claim that EU Commission has criticized England for slow reactor removal is wrong. EU legislation requires reactors to be removed within 30 days of disclosure. Reactor removal is currently below 10 days.
7. Badgers that are infected with the disease suffer so culling badgers will improve their welfare.
Team badger claim: That TB does not affect the health of badgers and that culling does not reduce the presence of Tb in badgers.
It is correct that badgers appear to be a very robust host to TB. This is partly what makes them a reservoir host for TB.
Our bovine TB programme is primarily about tackling the disease in cattle, given the huge threat it poses to our livestock industry.
But a badger with bovine TB is not a healthy badger. Republic of Ireland data show that badger infection levels are reduced significantly as a result of culling.
8. Many scientists support the badger culls.
Team Badger claim: Some scientists say that the badger cull is not justified.
Most scientists choose not to speak publicly on the subject because it is such a highly charged debate. Those that speak out against the Government’s policy are usually expressing a value judgment, rather than disputing the hard scientific evidence.
A meeting held at the Royal Society in April 2013 including about 60 scientists from various backgrounds showed that there is a strong consensus regarding the scientific evidence, even amongst those that have commented.
9. It is cheaper to cull than to vaccinate badgers or introduce better biosecurity.
Team Badger claim: Culling is a relatively costly option.
Defra sees vaccination as a valid method within the range of methods available for controlling TB. However, its use is only practical in specific circumstances and it is not as appropriate for widespread control as culling.
Defra’s evidence statement shows the direct costs of culling badgers is about £1,000/km2 using a combination of cage-trapping and controlled shooting (range: £300 – £2,500) compared with £2,250/km2 for vaccination. The Welsh Government’s badger vaccination project has cost around £3,900/km2.
Moreover, vaccination must be carried out over much long periods of time to achieve effectiveness. The overall costs to achieve an equivalent reduction of TB in cattle will be many times greater for vaccination than for culling.
We are working hard to develop an oral badger vaccine and a cattle vaccine. But we cannot wait the years that this work will take and watch the disease get worse.
There are gaps in our understanding of how to implement biosecurity, such as where to apply these measures and their efficacy in preventing breakdowns. There are no simple biosecurity fixes, and every farm is likely to need their own tailored approach.
10. Badger vaccination is impractical.
Team Badger claim: That badger vaccination is effective and practical.
Defra sees vaccination as one valid method within the range of methods available for controlling TB. However, its use is probably only practical in specific circumstances and it is not as appropriate for widespread control as culling.
Team Badger member organizations have expressed their willingness to carry out badger vaccination. We would be very happy to see them working with willing farmers and landowners to make that happen.
There is, however, much less evidence for the efficacy of vaccination of badgers for controlling TB in cattle than for culling. Vaccination will require long-term effort and vaccination alone, just like culling alone, will not eradicate disease from badgers due to poor protective effect of BCG (as seen in human populations that have been vaccinated).
Vaccination needs to be used alongside culling as a method that will eventually allow us to control TB, but it is not a replacement for culling.